Category Archives: 2003

#80: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Format: GameCube Genre: RPG Released: 2003 Developer: Nintendo

Wind Waker was a brave move on Nintendo’s part. Radically overhauling the graphical style of one of the best-loved game series of all time takes some chutzpah, and I remember it caused outrage at the time.

Fans were up in arms when the first shots of Wind Waker‘s cel-shaded graphics were released, and some quarters were quick to cite the new game as a signal that Nintendo was trying to ‘kiddify’ the Zelda series. As the finished game eventually proved though, this was all complete nonsense and bluster: if anything, it just goes to show that the kind of people who spit and rave on internet forums about these kinds of perceived ‘faults’ are generally the kind of people you can safely ignore.

In my opinion, Wind Waker‘s graphics are an absolute triumph – the game’s cel-shading is utterly charming and distinctive, and whereas most games from 2003 have aged badly in the terms of graphics, Wind Waker still looks as fresh as it did when it was released. In fact, I reckon the Wind Waker version of Link is even more iconic than the ‘traditional’ version – so much so that a friend of mine recently featured cel-shaded Link on her wedding invites.

I’m playing through The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess at the moment, which is what got me thinking about the Zelda canon. And yes, I know you’re probably shocked that I’ve only just got round to playing Twilight Princess despite the fact that it came out four years ago – we try to keep our finger on the pulse here at 101 Video Games, even if the patient died some time ago. And anyway, at least I’ve actually played some games, unlike a certain other blog co-author whose name I won’t mention… But I digress. The point is that unlike Wind WakerTwilight Princess feels like a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time – perhaps the direct sequel that the internet forums were baying for back in the early 2000s. And the real point I’m trying to make here is that Twilight Princess just isn’t as good as Wind Waker was.

Don’t get me wrong, Twilight Princess is an absolutely brilliant game, but whereas Wind Waker was a breath of fresh air that drew me in from the very beginning, Twilight Princess feels a little samey and derivative. The designers have obviously done their best to throw in a few new gameplay elements, but many of them fall flat – the sections where you play as a wolf, for example, just aren’t as much fun as playing in your human form, and of course they pale a little in comparison with the wonderful Okami (perhaps an example of a Zelda-imitator beating the original at its own game).

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that Nintendo went out on a limb with Wind Waker, and the gamble payed off brilliantly. I won’t bang on about all of the reasons the game is so wonderful (I’m sure you’ve probably played it yourself and can remember all too well), but I have to mention the sailing; there are only two games I can think of where travelling was just as enjoyable, if not more so, than reaching your destination, and this is one of them*. The fact that just moving around the gameworld was fun in itelf speaks volumes for just what an absolute classic this game is, and although we generally try to avoid including two games from the same series on our list, there was just no way for me to choose between this and Ocarina of Time. I might even put it on my wedding invites.

Lewis

*The other one is Skies of Arcadia, which had a similar treasure-hunting gameplay element (although it lacked a Tingle).

(Screenshots from www.gamefaqs.com and www.tailflip.com)

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Filed under 2003, GameCube, Nintendo, RPG

#71: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: Platform/Adventure Released: 2003 Developer: Ubisoft

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has been on my list of  ‘games to do’ since we started this blog, but seeing as the Prince of Persia film is coming out this week, now seems like a good time to cover it. By the way, doesn’t that film look absolutely terrible from the trailers? I don’t want to judge it before I see it, but I’d raise a quizzical eyebrow if it turned out to be a cinematic classic. Call me a cynic, but I’ve a feeling it will follow in the manured footsteps of  the many, many other video-game-to-film disasters – and seeing the dread name ‘Jerry Bruckheimer’ on the credits seals the deal.

I should mention at this point that I absolutely hated the original 1989 Prince of Persia game, despite its fancy rotoscoped animation – it was without doubt one of the most unerringly difficult and unendingly frustrating games I’ve ever played. I couldn’t see the point in creating such amazingly fluid animation when most of the gameplay involved creeping along at a snail’s pace while scanning the screen for barely visible traps. Then dying in said traps and starting all over again. And again. And again.

Thankfully Ubisoft picked up on this when they developed Sands of Time – not only was the game much more fluid, the addition of an ability to rewind time meant that frustrating level restarts (almost) became a thing of the past.

The rewind ability was a fantastic touch – it’s a shame it hasn’t been used more often. Who wants to click through various ‘Game Over’ screens when they die in a game? Surely it makes much more sense just to rewind back to the point at which you know you made a mistake and carry on playing. And another bonus of the rewind system is that it encourages you to experiment a little more – there’s nothing more frustrating than attempting a jump that you reckon you’ll just about make, then plummeting to your death because you were a few pixels short of a ledge (Tomb Raider, I’m looking at you). But in Sands of Time you’re free to experiment with impunity, and the game’s all the more fun because of it.

However, Sands of Time‘s biggest draw was its fluidity – Lara Croft suddenly looked like a creaky octogenarian when the acrobatic Prince arrived on the scene. The ‘wall run’ move – running along a vertical wall to clear a chasm – is one of the most satisfying inventions in videogame history, and not only does it look impressive, it’s incredibly easy to perform. The same is true of most of the game’s moves – from running up the body of an opponent and deftly flipping over his head to scampering up ledges like a monkey on uppers – and the excellent controls give you a sense of empowerment and connection with the main character that’s sadly lacking in most games.

It’s a shame the ‘Mystical Arabia’ look was all but abandoned for the subsequent two installments, which adopted a dark aesthetic that tarnished the feel somewhat, but I liked the cel-shaded 2008 reboot, even if it didn’t quite match up to Sands of Time. But regardless of the quality of the sequels, it’s interesting to see how the controls and animation of Sands of Time went on to be so influential (the wall run has since turned up in games from Assassin’s Creed to Mirror’s Edge – click here for a complete list). I wonder whether the film will prove to be so successful…

Lewis

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Filed under 2003, Adventure, Platform, Playstation 2, Ubisoft

#63: XIII

Format: Playstation 2 Genre: First Person Shooter Released: 2003 Developer: Ubisoft

OK, let’s get this out of the way first: I’m not saying that XIII is one of the greatest games of all time – in fact, it’s not even one of the greatest first person shooters of all time – but I enjoyed playing it immensely. The reason? The utterly sublime soundtrack.

Music and sound effects aren’t often what people single out when they praise a game, but a really good soundtrack can elevate any game beyond the ordinary – one of the reasons I didn’t enjoy Perfect Dark as much as  GoldenEye was that it lacked the aural finery of its spiritual predecessor (although as GoldenEye had a licensed soundtrack, perhaps that’s not the best example of musical creativity). The basic gameplay of XIII is fairly uninspired FPS fare, but the original score really draws you into the action.

Weapon noises are helpfully spelled out for the hard of hearing.

The music is obviously inspired by classic seventies action films such as Bullitt and The French Connection (listen to ‘The Big Chase’ here to see what I mean), and it reacts dynamically to what you’re doing on screen – open a door to a roomful of baddies and suddenly the bass kicks in and the hammond organ steps up a notch as the bullets go flying. One reviewer described the soundtrack as ‘jazzaphonic electronic tripped out funkuphoria‘ (try finding that section in HMV), and he’s certainly on the right track, if perhaps the victim of the NME disease of making up random meaningless but slightly cool-sounding words.

Headshots were accompanied by the appearance of three comic frames in the top-right corner of the screen, giving a snapshot of the immediate aftermath of your actions. A nice, but gruesome, touch.

The other major plus point was the plot – not something you often hear said about first person shooters. The game is based on a French graphic novel of the same name, and it’s a little like 24 in the sense that it revolves around a conspiracy to kill the president – the major difference being that the president’s already been assassinated before the game starts, so it’s more of a race to unravel the nefarious plans of those involved. Initially it borrows heavily from The Bourne Conspiracy (the novel of which was released a couple of years before the XIII graphic novel), with your character waking up on a beach with no memory of his past but with the key to a bank vault in his pocket. You’re rescued by a blonde female lifeguard in the classic Baywatch get-up, but almost as soon as she introduces herself she’s gunned down in cold blood by your unknown pursuers. I actually found this bit surprisingly affecting – there’s no shortage of shootings in most video games, but usually the characters on the receiving end are evil assassins/criminals/robots/ninjas…  it’s not often you witness the heartless killing of an innocent whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Like in the Bourne films, any weapon is deadly in your hands. Although in this case, a gun would definitely be preferred.

Other parts of the game are less successful – some of the level design is uninspired and the bosses in particular are badly thought out. For example, why does some random military general take several minutes longer than an average grunt to keel over under gunfire? Do they get some sort of armored undersuit on promotion? Also, I seem to remember the cel-shaded graphics didn’t go down too well on the game’s release – I think a lot of people were put off by the cartoony look at a time when most ‘serious’ first person shooters were moving towards realism. I admit that the cel-shading does seem an odd decision at first – and it really dates the game to that time in the early 2000s when cel-shading was all the rage – but I think it suits the overall feel quite well once you get used to it.

"Quick, get his wallet."

Still, despite XIII‘s shortcomings, the plot was good enough to keep me hooked to the end – and even made me buy another copy of the game. Frustratingly, a scratch developed on my first copy which meant it crashed about two-thirds of the way through, and I ended up scouring eBay for a working version just so I could find out what happened in the end. In fact, I enjoyed the story so much I’ve even got the original graphic novel on order…

But in the end, whenever I think about XIII, it’s not the intricate plot that pops into my head – it’s that ‘jazzaphonic’ seventies action film soundtrack. Have a listen for yourself:

Lewis

(Screenshots from http://www.armchairempire.com/)

4 Comments

Filed under 2003, First Person Shooter, Playstation 2, Ubisoft

#54: Pokémon Ruby

Format: Game Boy Advance Genre: RPG Developer: Game Freak/Nintendo Released: 2003

I was inspired to write this post after reading this comment by shush plz on game number 12, Doshin the Giant. Mr. plz rightly asserts that just because a game is accessible for all ages doesn’t make it a “kids’ game”, which leads me to my case in point: Pokémon Ruby.

I was initially put off playing the Pokémon games because of their “kiddie” credentials, but I eventually bought Pokémon Ruby on the recommendation of a friend. The cute graphics certainly suggest that Pokémon is “for kids”, but this is far from the truth – beneath the twee presentation there’s some rock-solid gameplay. Although the game is pretty easy to begin with, you soon find yourself engrossed in the complex resource management and micro-manipulation that’s essential for creating a champion herd of Pokémon.

HA! IN YOUR FACE, WURMPLE!!!

Oh, and did I mention that collecting Pokémon has roughly the same level of addictiveness as a packet of Jaffa Cakes dusted wth heroin? I initially approached the game with a heavy amount of cynicism with regards to the whole business of Pokémon collecting, but after a while you find yourself getting totally sucked in – all of a sudden, finding a new Pokémon acquires the same sense of excitement and achievement as passing your driving test while drunk, or unearthing an ancient chest full of dirty photos of Cleopatra.

Fishing has never been so much fun.

This game had me totally hooked – pretty much from the moment I picked it up I found that I was carrying my GBA everywhere, and I’d use every spare minute I had to search out some of the rarer specimens. Towards the end of my Pokémon marathon I recall a sobering moment – it was when I realised that I’d spent the best part of an hour traipsing around in the same patch of long grass in the hope of finding a particularly rare Pokémon, and it was about this time that I thought I’d really better stop playing this damn game and read a book or something instead.

Why walk when you can ride an uncontrollably fast bicycle?

That’s the trouble you see – although you can “complete” the game by defeating the final boss, you’ve never really finished it until you’ve collected all of the hundreds of Pokémon, but this involves a great deal of aimless wandering and random battles in the hope that one of the rarer beasts will pop up. At some point, for the sake of your own sanity, you have to just call it a day and admit to yourself that you’re never going to “catch ’em all”.

"We're gonna need a bigger boat."

I’m very tempted to get one of the new Pokémon games for the DS (Pokémon Diamond and Pokémon Pearl), but because there’s now a grand total of 480 Pokémon to collect, I’m worried that these games could finally push me over the edge (or at least put a massive dent in my reading time).

If you’ve yet to work out what the Pokémon phenomenon is all about, I thoroughly recommend you pick up one of the Pokémon games with all due haste – but just make sure you have plenty of spare time first.

Lewis

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Filed under 2003, Game Boy Advance, Game Freak, Nintendo, RPG

#53: Soul Calibur II

Format: GameCube Genre: Fighting Released: 2003 Developer: Namco

The Soul Calibur games are without doubt my favourite 3D fighting games, and I reckon Soul Calibur II – specifically the GameCube version – is the best of the lot. It certainly had the best guest character – Link from the Zelda series, who was perfectly suited to the hack and slash gameplay.

GameCube owners lucked out on the character front – the Xbox version had a rather disappointing Spawn as its special guest character, whereas the PS2 version had Heihachi from Tekken who, although certainly an impressive fighter, seemed to have been out of the office when the memo was sent round about packing a weapon in his overnight bag.

And it’s the weapons that elevate the Soul Calibur games above your average 3D fighter – from Kilik’s great big bludgeoning stick to Nightmare’s mahoosive sword, the various hack ‘n’ slashing tools added some fantastic variety to the fights.

Is that a bomb in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?

The Soul Calibur series’ greatest innovation was the introduction of a ‘story mode’ for the single-player campaign. Most fighting games have pretty dull single-player modes that simply require you to fight your way through a set number of opponents in order to ‘beat’ the game [*yawn*]. Thankfully, someone at Namco realised this is a pretty tedious way of going about things, so they introduced a map that your character works his or her way across, with various extra missions and bonuses to unlock, along with an overarching story for each fighter. Some of the fights had special requirements that livened things up from the usual ‘hit your opponent in the face until they fall over’ rigmarole: one of the more interesting ones was a level in which you could only damage your foe by knocking them against a wall. Another one saw you poisoned at the start, causing your health to tick down gradually – the only way to restore it was to successfully hit your opponent (natch).

Good old Astaroth. Nice hat.

The money earned from the story mode let you ‘pimp’ your character with all sorts of improved weaponry – in a way, the whole thing was more like an RPG than a traditional fighting game. Some of the weapons were particularly brilliant – I remember Yoshimitsu’s ‘joke’ weapon was a shepherd’s crook that made bleating noises every time you hit your opponent.

The costumes were fantastic too. The levels of costume absurdity seemed to have risen steadily over the course of the series, culminating in Soul Calibur IV‘s  truly ludicrous range of fashion nightmares, but the more ridiculous the costumes get, the more I like them. Astaroth’s outfit’s in Soul Calibur II deserve a special mention – I was a big fan of his purple jester hat (see above), but he also had an even better one that looked like some sort of rubber mohican.

"Ta da! What do you mean you think the codpiece is too much?"

Generally the characters in Soul Calibur II were wonderfully designed and carefully balanced – and then there was Necrid.

No-one likes Necrid. I bet even Necrid probably doesn’t like Necrid. Not only does he look ridiculous, he’s a real pain to fight with too – his style is basically a very lazy mash-up of several other characters’ moves, none of which is very satisfying or interesting. The character was designed by Todd McFarlane (he of Spawn fame), and you kind of get the impression that the Japanese designers wanted his input in order to appeal more to Western audiences – perhaps they should have had more faith in their own talents. Thankfully, Necrid didn’t make it into the subsequent two games, and he exists now only as an embrassing blip in the series’ otherwise noble history.

Necrid - by far the least likeable character. Although he seems to be giving Yunsung a good old thrashing here.

If you get the chance, I heartily recommend tracking down the GameCube version of Soul Calibur II – not only is it blessed with probably the best single-player mode in the series, it also gives you the opportunity to lay the smack down on various golems and ninjas with a certain green-clad pointy-eared chap harbouring various bombs and boomerangs about his person. And surely that’s an opportunity not to be missed.

Lewis

Screenshots from http://www.firingsquad.com.

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Filed under 2003, Fighting, GameCube, Namco

#31: Steel Battalion

Format: Xbox Genre: Mech Game* Released: 2003 Developer: Capcom

I saw the controller for this game before I knew anything else about it. I was doing work experience at CVG at the time, and a leaked internet photo of the extravagant twin joystick/pedal interface (see photo below) caused everyone in the office to gather round and gawp like idiots. Initially I thought it was some sort of joke, but an official press release from Capcom quickly followed – apparently they were serious about releasing a peripheral approximately half the size of the average Japanese living room**.

Steel_Battalion_Coverart

It’s obvious that the control system was dreamt up by some seriously nuts mech fanboys who wanted to take the mech game experience to its logical extreme – i.e. by recreating an actual mech cockpit***. But this is just what makes the game so appealing and refreshing – it’s fantastic to see someone coming up with such a frankly bonkers idea and then just running with it. I’d love to have seen the looks on the faces of the Capcom execs when the developers were pitching this idea, but huge kudos to the Capcom bigwigs for going with it – most companies would have run a mile when they found out how much the controller would cost. (The controller and game retailed for $200 in the US, and this was in the days before  expensive guitar and drum controllers were commonplace. Apparently the game broke even though, and they even made a sequel.)

steel battalion controller

The array of options on the controller is staggering – it features over 40 buttons, the most notorious of which was the ‘eject’ button, housed underneath a plastic cover on the top right of the console. If your mech (sorry, VT****) takes critical damage, the eject button starts flashing and you have only a few seconds to hit it before your VT explodes in a rain of fiery death. Failure to hit the button in time results in the death of your character and your save game being erased. Yep, there are no second chances in Steel Battalion – this game takes the notion of hardcore gaming to worrying extremes. I’m just surprised that the controller doesn’t give you electric shocks every time you get hit.

steel battalion screenshot 1

As you’d expect from the dazzlingly complicated array of buttons (you can read a full list of what they all do here), there’s a bit more to Steel Battalion than simple arcade-style shooting and dodging. The attention to detail is frankly ludicrous – there’s even a button that washes the camera on the front of the VT if it gets dirty during a fight (yes, that’s right, there’s a button for windscreen washers). Not to mention a fire extinguisher button and no less than 8 buttons that are used solely for starting up your VT (see video below).  Admittedly, going through all the rigmarole of pressing these various switches just to get your VT walking is quite entertaining the first time you do it, and adds to the experience enormously. However, I imagine that by the 50th time you play the game, this extended start-up sequence might start to lose some of its lustre… “Come on you bloody machine, start will you! I just want to shoot things!!!”

steel battalion screenshot 2

I say ‘I imagine’ because in fact I only ever played Steel Battalion once, at a friend’s house. (A friend with a very understanding wife who didn’t mind the fact that most of the living room had disappeared underneath shiny black plastic and flashing buttons. Having said that, he didn’t have it for very long, so maybe she put her foot down.)

“What?!”, I hear you cry, “How can you include a game that you only ever played once?!”

Well, I reply, for a number of reasons, chief of which is that this is my blog and I’ll do exactly what I like thank you very much. Hem hem. [Clears throat]

steel battalion screenshot 3

But more to the point, the whole ethos around this game probably gave me more enjoyment than my short time playing the game itself – from the buzz of excitement generated by the first pictures in the CVG office, right through to my friend excitedly telling me that he’d actually bought it. Laying my hands on that fantastically ridiculous controller for the first (and last) time was just the icing on the cake.

If you look at the shelves in any game shop you’ll see they’re heaving with ‘me too’ software – myriad copycat first-person shooters or film-licenced rubbish – so it’s good to know that there are some game companies out there with a bit of imagination and the conviction to try something new. Nice one Capcom.

Lewis

*I’ve listed this one as a ‘Mech Game’ – I was going to just put it down as ‘Action’ or ‘Vehicle Simulation’, but they’re such vague definitions as to be almost useless. I think mech games occupy a special genre of their own – a heady mix of cinematic action and unbelievably anal stat fiddling. See Armored Core For Answer for a recent example (incredibly, this is the thirteenth game in the Armored Core series – there must be a factory somewhere just churning them out).

**From an eBay listing of Steel Battalion:

I haven’t got the space for this – I only bought it a couple of days ago and my wife won’t let me keep it =(

I can just imagine the look on his wife’s face as he came through the door lugging a controller the size of a fridge. Priceless.

***I just found out that the controller was developed before they even started making the game (see here), which makes sense.

****Curiously, the two-legged metal behemoths are referred to as ‘Vertical Tanks’ or ‘VTs’ in the game rather than mechs.

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Filed under 2003, Capcom, Mech Game, Xbox